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Reform the Claims Conference, and Protect a Legacy

April 12, 2007 By:
Isi Leibler
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Claims Conference Chair Israel Singer (left) met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin in January 2006.

Over the past year, escalating complaints and demands for greater transparency have been directed against the management of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), the organization responsible for recovering and distributing Jewish assets plundered by the Nazis.

Many of the complaints are long-standing, and were exposed in 1997 in a series of articles by Netty C. Gross in The Jerusalem Report. The central issue remains the allegation that whereas the Claims Conference does disclose allocations, it lacks transparency regarding the manner in which it allocates funds.

Critics insist that it functions more like an old boys club than a representative body, and that its board is merely a rubber stamp endorsing the decisions of a few machers, who make decisions among themselves and only consult their key constituents. This is confirmed by the fact that the board never meaningfully challenges allocations submitted by the selection committee.

As the vast majority of directors are themselves representatives of organizations benefiting from distributions, they are also disinclined to rock the boat by attempting to reform the structure. That is possibly why the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency -- both major beneficiaries of Claims Conference funds -- have failed to demand greater transparency and bring about reforms to the composition of the board, which remains virtually unchanged since it was created in 1951.

The most passionate complaint against the board is that as a consequence of years of delayed processing and neglect -- and despite its being one of the wealthiest foundations in the world -- many aged Holocaust survivors in poor health will not live to receive their restitution entitlements.

In recent years, the efficiency of processing applications has improved, but numerous complaints remain. Many rank-and-file survivors also insist that their representatives on the board no longer adequately represent their interests.

When you think about the millions of dollars provided by the German government for the Claims Conference's administrative expenses, it is regrettable that an independent ombudsman structure was not established. That would have enabled complaints to be objectively assessed, and survivors could have avoided resorting to American and German courts to resolve their problems. There are also mounting complaints that the Claims Conference still fails to fully disclose its assets, and that it sold Jewish properties appropriated by the Nazis without providing adequate notice to heirs to register claims.

Allegedly, this is merely the tip of the iceberg because the value of assets from East Germany alone may amount to billions of dollars. All these issues could be laid to rest if genuine transparency applied.

A rising disquiet about Claims Conference management has now intensified following chairman Julius Berman's calls for Israel Singer to step down from the Claims Conference presidency after the World Jewish Congress -- a constituent organization of the Claims Conference -- fired him for alleged financial improprieties.

After virtually the entire global media -- not to mention sundry anti-Semitic Web sites -- had been disseminating the lurid scandal surrounding his dismissal, Berman's ex-cathedra announcement that Singer could stay on and negotiate with governments on behalf of the Jewish people is nothing less than astonishing.

Whatever the outcome of Singer's situation, the need to thoroughly restructure in order to enable the Claims Conference to better reflect the reality of today's Jewish life must become a top priority. If the complaints prove unfounded, transparency will at least put an end to false rumors.

After the World Jewish Congress debacle, we must ensure that the vastly more important Claims Conference -- whose decisions will have a profound impact on the future of the Jewish people -- is managed by a regime of good governance in a totally open manner, and fulfills its mandate of serving the interests of survivors and their heirs, as well as enshrining the memory of those who perished during the Holocaust.

Isi Liebler is a Jerusalem-based writer who chairs the Diaspora-Israel relations committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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